Understanding Democracy

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Jüri Ratas (Prime Minister of Estonia), Guy Verhofstadt (Former Prime Minister, Belgium & EU Chief Brexit Negotiator), Vicente Fox Quesada (Former President of Mexico), Noam Chomsky (Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who – with over 150 books published – is regarded as ‘one of the most critically engaged public intellectuals alive today’), Alastair Campbell (Communicator, Writer and Strategist), Glenn Greenwald (Multi Award Winning Journalist, Constitutional Lawyer and Author), Lawrence “Larry” Lessig (Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School), Professor Yanis Varoufakis (Economist and Former Minister of Finance of Greece) and Professor A. C. Grayling (philosopher, thinker, author and educator; Master of the New College of the Humanities).  We discuss the state and future of democracy around the world, together with the role that government, corporations and the media play in shaping our lives.  We also look at the global war on terror, globalisation, populism, and the forces changing our world.

In March 1949, Dr. Quincy Wright (1890-1970) of the University of Chicago presented a paper for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) entitled “Philosophical Enquiry Into Current Ideological Conflicts; The Meaning of Democracy“.

Dr. Wright states, “Like all social and political terms which serve at the same time as slogans for movements and as symbols for conceptions, the word democracy has in fact varied in meaning according to time, place, and circumstances. This variability is, in fact, a condition of most forms of popular discourse. They are continually acquiring new meanings as can be seen by studying any historical dictionary.” He continues by citing examples of this variability. “Democracy…” he writes, “has always suggested a wide popular participation in the support, conduct and benefits of government, but the conception has taken colour from the conditions and opinions which advocates of democracy have at particular times and places found in opposition to their aims. Thus, in a struggle against an unpopular rule of a monarch or oligarchy, democracy has referred to government by the many, rather than the few; in a struggle against social privilege, class or race discrimination, and economic inequality, democracy has referred to equality in social position and economic welfare; in a struggle against government monopoly of economic initiative, public opinion and political association, democracy has referred to freedom of enterprise, communication, opinion and association; in a struggle against corrupt and arbitrary manipulations of opinion, democracy has referred to procedures for regulating elections and party action in order to assure freedom of opinion, wide participation and fair representation; in a struggle against excesses of majorities and oppression of minorities, democracy has referred to the rule of law and protection of fundamental human rights; in a struggle for freedom of dependent or oppressed peoples, democracy has referred to home rule, self government, and self determination of distinctive groups; in a struggle for influence of suppressed groups or classes, democracy has referred to consent of the governed, non-discrimination and procedures for consultation among all interested groups in policy formation.”

Humanity is a plurality made-up of many different individuals forming highly interconnected communities of mutual interest and co-operation (families, political groups, cities, countries, and so forth) and it is the individuals within the groups rather than the group ‘in general’ who, ultimately, exert power. “Democracy is [therefore] a compromise designed to balance interests among members of a community.” (Han Zhen, Democracy as a Way to Social Compromise, 2006). As our society has grown from small villages of (at most) few hundred people to a vast interconnected global economy of six billion, the complexity of the compromise along with the incredibly varied interests of group members has introduced profound challenges to democracy itself. These challenges (often left unaddressed) leave our society in a near-permanent state of visible conflict (albeit with varying intensity) across all dimensions of struggle (akin to those outlined by Wright, above).

Against this backdrop of social, economic and political conflict, what is the future of democracy?

In these exclusive interviews we speak to Jüri Ratas (Prime Minister of Estonia), Guy Verhofstadt (Former Prime Minister, Belgium & EU Chief Brexit Negotiator), Vicente Fox Quesada (Former President of Mexico), Noam Chomsky (Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who – with over 150 books published – is regarded as ‘one of the most critically engaged public intellectuals alive today’), Alastair Campbell (Communicator, Writer and Strategist), Glenn Greenwald (Multi Award Winning Journalist, Constitutional Lawyer and Author), Lawrence “Larry” Lessig (Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School), Professor Yanis Varoufakis (Economist and Former Minister of Finance of Greece) and Professor A. C. Grayling (philosopher, thinker, author and educator; Master of the New College of the Humanities).  We discuss the state and future of democracy around the world, together with the role that government, corporations and the media play in shaping our lives.  We also look at the global war on terror, globalisation, populism, and the forces changing our world.


View Interviewee Biographies

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, leader of the Estonian Centre Party, is the head of the Government of the Republic of Estonia since 23 November 2016.

Jüri Ratas was born on 2 July 1978. He has finished Nõmme Secondary School in Tallinn, graduated from Tallinn University of Technology in the area of Business Management and obtained his Master´s degree in Economic Sciences from the University of Technology. He also holds a Bachelor´s degree in Law from the School of Law at the University of Tartu.

Jüri Ratas has broad work experience in different areas. His first positions were Analyst of the Building Research Institute and Market Researcher of ANR Amer Nielsen Eesti OÜ, then he was appointed to the Chairman of the Management Board of the car service Värvilised OÜ (1999-2002) and worked as Sales Representative of the insurance company Sampo Eesti Kindlustus (1999-2000).

Jüri Ratas has also contributed to the development of Estonian basketball, in 2001-2002 as the Head of Youth Basketball of the Estonian Basketball Association and from 2012 to 2016 in the position of the President of the Estonian Basketball Association.

His service in Tallinn administration started in 2002 when he was elected the Economic Adviser to the Tallinn City Office (2002-2003). During 2003-2004 and in 2005 Jüri Ratas served as the Deputy Mayor of Tallinn and from 2005 to 2007 as the Mayor of Tallinn. He has been elected to Tallinn City Council in 2005, 2009 and 2013. In 2007-2016 Jüri Ratas held the position of the Vice-President of the 11th, 12th and 13th Estonian Parliament.

Guy Verhofstadt was Prime Minister of Belgium from 1999 to 2008. In 2009, he was elected in the European Parliament where he became group leader of the Liberals and Democrats. In 2014, Verhofstadt was reelected, took on his second term as liberal group leader and two years later he was appointed Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament.

Vicente Fox was President of Mexico from 2000 to 2006.

Fox’s priorities as President were improving the Mexican economy, mainly through better trade relations with the United States, banking reforms and tackling crime and corruption; increased bilateral cooperation with the United States on drug trafficking and illegal immigration; and strengthening the rights of Mexico’s indigenous peoples.

Vicente Fox began his career in business. Having earned a degree in business administration from the Ibero-American University in Mexico City and from the Harvard Business School, Fox worked for the Mexican unit of the Coca-Cola Company, serving as the company’s CEO in Mexico from 1975-79. Convinced that Mexico needed new leadership as the country’s economy struggled in the 1980’s, Fox turned to politics and joined the National Action Party (PAN) in 1987.

In 1988 Fox was elected to the national Chamber of Deputies, representing the Third Federal District in León, Guanajuato and, in 1995, became the governor of Guanajuato, in which role he promoted government efficiency and transparency. He was one of the first state governors of Mexico to give a clear, public and timely account of the finances of Guanajuato, and he pushed for the consolidation of small firms, promoted the sale of goods manufactured in Guanajuato overseas and created a unique system in which micro-credits with no overdue portfolio were granted. Under Fox, the state became the fifth most important Mexican state economy.

In 2000 Fox ran for president on a platform that focused on ending government corruption and improving the economy. At the polls he easily defeated PRI candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa, and on Dec. 1, 2000, he succeeded Ernesto Zedillo as president of Mexico. It was the first time in Mexico’s history that an incumbent government peacefully surrendered power to an elected member of the opposition.

Fox focused his early efforts on improving trade relations with the United States, calming civil unrest in such areas as Chiapas, and reducing corruption, crime, and drug trafficking. In 2001 his administration introduced constitutional reforms that strengthened the rights of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Although the measures were ratified by the necessary number of Mexican states, seven other states—including Chiapas, where more than half the indigenous population lives—rejected them. Advocates for indigenous rights objected to amendments that required indigenous peoples to act in accordance with the constitution and that reduced their autonomy in some spheres. Leaders of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas—who had made constitutional reform a condition of their return to peace talks—also opposed the new law.

In economic affairs, Fox’s proposals, particularly his plans to increase taxes as part of sweeping reforms to stabilize the Mexican economy and banking system, met fierce resistance in the Mexican legislature, where the PAN lacked a majority.

In 2006 Fox left office, succeeded by Felipe Calderón of the PAN.

Since leaving the presidency, Vicente Fox has been involved in public speaking across the world.

He has also been very active with the Vicente Fox Center of Studies, Library and Museum (Centro Fox), Mexico’s first presidential library. The Centro Fox seeks to reduce corruption, increase transparency, improve immigration policy and encourage a sense of commitment and solidarity among the Mexican population for the underprivileged and for those who have not enjoyed the benefits of development. Among its many programs, Centro Fox supports the development of leaders dedicated to serving their communities in Mexico and Latin America.

Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He received his early education at Oak Lane Country Day School and Central High School, Philadelphia. He continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics. Respected and honoured numerous times in the academic arena, he has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of London and the University of Chicago, as well as having been invited to lecture all over the world. In 1967, he delivered the Beckman Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1969, he presented the John Locke Lectures at the University of Oxford and Sherman Memorial Lectures at the University of London.

Alastair Campbell is a writer, communicator and strategist best known for his role as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategy. Still active in politics and campaigns in Britain and overseas, he now splits his time between writing, speaking, charities and consultancy.

He has written eleven books in the past eight years, including six volumes of diaries, three novels, a personal memoir on depression and the pursuit of happiness, and most recently Winners and How They Succeed, a Number 1 best-selling analysis of what it takes to win in politics, business and sport.

He has for many years been chairman of fund-raising of Bloodwise, Britain’s main blood cancer charity, but in recent years has become increasingly involved with mental health charities and causes. A former ‘Mind Champion of the Year’, he is an ambassador for the Time to Change campaign to raise awareness about mental illness, ambassador for Alcohol Concern, patron of Maytree, the country’s only charity for the suicidal, and of Kidstime, which supports the children of mentally ill parents. He co-founded the all-party campaign, Equality4MentalHealth, which was credited in Parliament by Chancellor George Osborne with securing an extra £600million for mental health services in the 2005 spending review.

He writes a monthly interview for GQ magazine, and has covered figures as varied as Jose Mourinho and Nicola Sturgeon, Kevin Spacey and Mario Balotelli. Passionate about sport, he was written about different sports for The Times, the Irish Times and Esquire magazine. He was communications adviser to the British and Irish Lions rugby tour of New Zealand in 2005. He has raised funds for Burnley FC, a team he has supported since the age of four. His charity projects have involved him playing football with both Diego Maradona and Pele, and appearing in a one off version of the popular TV programme, The Apprentice.

In his time in Downing Street he was involved in all the major policy issues and international crises. He has said that in ten years in the media, and a decade in politics, he saw his respect for the media fall and his respect for politics rise. He was called to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards twice, first for his insights into modern journalism, second to give his views on the changed relationship between politics and media. He is a sought after speaker at events around the world, specialising in strategic communications, leadership, team building and crisis management. Since publishing Winners, he has been asked to support a number of leading sports organisations.

Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law. His most recent book, No Place to Hide, is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at The Guardian and Salon. He was the debut winner, along with Amy Goodman, of the Park Center I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism in 2008, and also received the 2010 Online Journalism Award for his investigative work on the abusive detention conditions of Chelsea Manning. For his 2013 NSA reporting, he received the George Polk award for National Security Reporting; the Gannett Foundation award for investigative journalism and the Gannett Foundation watchdog journalism award; the Esso Premio for Excellence in Investigative Reporting in Brazil (he was the first non-Brazilian to win), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Along with Laura Poitras, Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the top 100 Global Thinkers for 2013. The NSA reporting he led for The Guardian was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School.

Prior to rejoining the Harvard faculty, Lessig was a professor at Stanford Law School, where he founded the school’s Center for Internet and Society, and at the University of Chicago.

He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court. Lessig serves on the Board of the AXA Research Fund, and on the advisory boards of Creative Commons and the Sunlight Foundation.

He is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Association, and has received numerous awards, including the Free Software Foundation’s Freedom Award, Fastcase 50 Award and being named one of Scientific American’s Top 50 Visionaries.

Lessig holds a BA in economics and a BS in management from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in philosophy from Cambridge, and a JD from Yale.

Yanis Varoufakis is a Greek economist who was a member of the Parliament of Greece between January and September 2015. He represented the ruling Syriza party and held the position of Minister of Finance for seven months.  He voted against the terms of the third bailout package for Greece.  In February 2016, Varoufakis launched the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25).

Varoufakis is a participant in the current debates on the global and European crisis, the author of The Global Minotaur and several academic texts on economics and game theory, Professor of Economic Theory at the University of Athens and a private consultant for Valve Corporation. He is a dual Greek-Australian citizen and describes himself as a ‘libertarian Marxist‘: “In truth, Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day. It is not something that I volunteer to talk about in ‘polite society’ much these days because the very mention of the M-word switches audiences off.”

Anthony Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. Until 2011 he was Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited over thirty books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are “The Good Book“, “Ideas That Matter“, “Liberty in the Age of Terror” and “To Set Prometheus Free“. For several years he wrote the “Last Word” column for the Guardian newspaper and a column for the Times. He is a frequent contributor to the Literary Review, Observer, Independent on Sunday, Times Literary Supplement, Index on Censorship and New Statesman, and is an equally frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He writes the “Thinking Read” column for the Barnes and Noble Review in New York, is the Editor of Online Review London, and a Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine.

In addition he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British philosophical association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and is a representative to the UN Human Rights Council for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He is a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, the Patron of the United Kingdom Armed Forces Humanist Association, a patron of Dignity in Dying, and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society.

Anthony Grayling was a Fellow of the World Economic Forum for several years, and a member of its C-100 group on relations between the West and the Islamic world. He has served as a Trustee of the London Library and a board member of the Society of Authors. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 2003 he was a Man Booker Prize judge, in 2010 was a judge of the Art Fund prize, and in 2011 the Wellcome Book Prize. He was the chairman of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

He supports a number of charities including Plan UK, Greenpeace, Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International and Freedom from Torture. He is also a sponsor of Rogbonko School in Sierra Leone. His latest books are “The God Argument” (March 2013), “Friendship” (September 2013) and “The Challenge of Things” (March 2015). Anthony Grayling’s new book “The Age of Genius” was published in March 2016.


Q: What is democracy?

[Professor Lawrence Lessig] The most important feature of a representative democracy is that it gives its people the sense that they’re represented equally, and can participate equally in the economy.  American democracy is not a representative democracy.

The institution of congress has become a failed institution within the American republic, and that weakness makes it impossible for America to address some of its most pressing problems.

A functional representative democracy is something we need to aspire to, we’ve never really had it in America, and we ought to give it a try.

[Prof. A. C. Grayling] The most general characterisation of democracy is that suitably enfranchised people of voting age, have the final say to confer authority on the government a state has.  The way that franchised will is expressed differs from one system to another. Democracy allows an expression of popular will on the policies and parties that might form a government.

We have a very unsatisfactory electoral system in the UK, but there is broad consensus to accept how it works.  A referendum on proportional representation was rejected by the country a few years ago, so we stick with the ‘first past the post’ system.

For most of history, people have been worried that democracy too readily degenerates into ochlocracy (mob rule) and as a result, almost all democratic systems have structures and institutions in place to filter out the danger of a collapse into mob sentiment.  There is a saying- generally attributed to Churchill which is that, ‘the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter…’ People tend to incompletely informed, too self-interested and too short-termist.  The ideal democracy is one where people are very well informed and think of the good of all, not just themselves- and that’s simply not what happens.

In the UK, we have a representative democracy.  The people sent to Parliament are not merely messengers or delegates, they are sent in order to get the information, to do some thinking, to discuss, debate, make judgements and act on behalf of their constituents and the country as a whole.  If we don’t like what they do? We can chuck them out at the next election.  While they are in Parliament, these individuals are supposed to be acting on our behalf.  We have what you might call a constitutional arrangement, a constitutional democracy- which is the right kind of compromise between mob-rule at one extreme and autocracy and tyranny at the other.

[Guy Verhofstadt] There is no simple answer to this question. In my view democracy is about the people having a say in who governs them, and how they are governed. But democracy comes in many forms. For me, the most effective forms of democracy are liberal democracies, where the people elect people to represent their interests. These liberal democratic tenets are a core part of the European Union, and other national parliaments.

Personally, I would like to see a more democratic European Union, where we have an elected President, chosen by the directly elected European representatives. We need to make it a Government by the people, for the people. In order to achieve this, we need to strengthen the European Parliament as they are the elected representatives of the people. One example of how this would work is that the European Parliament should have control of the whole EU budget, so that the citizens control the European budget. This would strengthen democracy.

It is crucial that we defend our democracy against authoritarian style governance, which we see around the world. Democracy creates more cohesive societies because people are being listened to. They are not simply told what to do. This is important in order to create the sort of world we want to live in.

Q: To what extent are our societies free and democratic?

[Noam Chomsky] These Societies are quite free by historical standards. They are democratic in the sense that they have formal elections that aren’t stolen, and so on. They’re undemocratic to the extent that forces other than popular will have an overwhelming affect on who can participate in electoral outcomes. The United States is the most extreme in this respect. Right now in the United States, elections are essentially bought. You can’t run an election unless you have a huge amount of capital- which means overwhelmingly, although not one hundred percent, that capital was sought from strong corporate backing. For example, in the 2008 election– what carried Obama across the finish line first at the end was a very substantial amount of support from financial institutions which are now the core of the economy. The coming elections are supposed to be a two-billion-dollar election, and there’s only one place to go for that kind of money.

There used to be a system of chairs of committees in congress, who were there through seniority and so on. By now, it is generally required that funding go to the party committee- which means those are also, in large part, bought. This means that popular opinion is very much marginalised. You can see this very clearly on issue after issue. So the huge issue right now, domestically, is the deficit. Well… People have ideas about how to get rid of the deficit. For example- most of the deficit is the result of a highly dysfunctional healthcare system which has about twice the per-capita cost of other countries and by no means better outcomes- in fact, rather poorer outcomes. The population has long favoured moving toward some kind of national healthcare system- which would be much less expensive and (judging by the outcomes) no worse, maybe better. That would, in fact, eliminate the deficit! That’s not even considered!

[Glenn Greenwald] The extent to which our society is free and democratic is all relative, the question is- relative to what?

There are clearly a lot of ways in which the range of acceptable ideas within society is narrowed, and the political choices we have are seriously constrained. In a lot of senses we have the appearance of freedom and democracy, and much less so a reality. You can have societies in which people can go to a ballot box once every 3-5 years and pick who their leaders are going to be, but that doesn’t mean you have freedom or democracy in any meaningful sense; and that’s generally how I would describe most western countries.

Q: What are your views on liberalism?

[Vicente Fox] Liberals are highly democratic, highly diverse and highly attuned to the issues of today and tomorrow.   I love liberals, though I don’t love crazy liberals at the extreme.  The best combination is conservative approaches to running the economy; making sure the economy is stable and secure, but I love the vanguard, open and diverse thinking that liberalism brings.

Q: What kind of democracy does our world need?

[Yanis Varoufakis] To have genuine democracy, we need to democratise the spheres in which power is exercised.

For the past 200 years or so, there has been a migration of power from the political to the economic sphere, and later to the financial sphere.  As this migration proceeded, the political sphere became increasingly democratised.  The European Union is the perfect example, just look at Spain, Greece or Portugal which had fascist dictatorships until the 1970s, and now are fully democratic, with functioning democratic constitutions, elections that are almost taken for granted and yet- the decisions that matter are shifted to a realm which is completely democracy free, where there are no checks and balances whatsoever, and no accountability.  This de-politicisation of power is an ongoing process.

To have an authentic democracy you need to have a political sphere that is subject to constant assessment and re-assessment by the citizens, but you also need to have economic relationships that are subject to the same.  For example, when you make a Google search- this is an economic relationship; why? Because Google makes money from you doing that!

We need the control of power to extend to the economic and financial realm.  This means we will have different property rights and social relations at the level of production.

Q: Are referendums an essential part of democracy?

[Alastair Campbell] You have to see things in a historical context.  If you live in Switzerland for example, there is a commitment to public consultation and decision by referendum- this seems to work for them.  One of our strengths, and one of the things often admired about Britain is that we’re a Parliamentary democracy.  There are faults in any political system but ours has done pretty-well, partly because of constituency representation that gives people a local representative in government, and partly because we choose the government who make decisions on our behalf.  The weakness of Cameron’s referendum-strategy was that he wasn’t doing it as a means of taking forward his strategy for the UK in Europe, but rather that he was using it as a tactic to shut-up UKIP and the Tory right.

The populists and right-wing press would jump on any attempt to not permit a vote on such topics as being tantamount to saying, ‘you don’t trust the public.’  This is not about trusting or not trusting the public, it’s about the fact that we- as a population- make a decision about choosing the people who govern us, and we also reserve the right to get rid of those people if they don’t do their job.

I think referendums are very dangerous.

[Guy Verhofstadt] Democracy comes in many forms. A liberal democracy is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. In the EU we have a representative democracy which means that the people elect representatives to represent them, and if the individual does not represent them well then the voters can vote them out of their post after the parliament period. Liberal democracies protect individual liberty and property by the rule of law.

So, the answer is no. Living in a democracy does not mean that the public should vote on everything. That would be a direct democracy which is inefficient and does not always lead to a good outcome because it is hard for people to be fully informed about every issue. How would anyone have the time to gather all the information they need to make every decision needed whilst working and living their life? There simply would not be enough time.

A good example is the EU referendum in the UK last year. Many people have said that they did not feel properly informed about the issues involved, and that the decision should not have been given to the public. It is not up to me to judge whether the decision should have been made by the British public or not. That was a decision for the government of the United Kingdom. However, now we are embarking on a very complicated set of negotiations which will change the United Kingdom’s relationship with their closest neighbours, and views have been expressed by members of the British public that they should never have been made to vote on such a complicated issue, which has so many profound implications.

Q: What has caused our democratic crisis?

[Professor Lawrence Lessig] There are three critical ways in which America has allowed its democracy to no longer be a representative democracy, and these have to change if we ever  want to get anywhere close to a functioning democracy.

The core idea of our [American] representative democracy is that we should have a congress that is dependent on the people alone (as Madison described in ‘The Federalist Papers).  This idea has been corrupted by a system of campaign finance that requires members of congress to spend 30-70% of their time, raising money from the tiniest fraction of the ‘1%’ to fund their campaigns.

The absurd way we gerrymander districts in the House of Representatives also means that 89 million Americans have no effective representation, because they happen to be the minority in a district that is safely controlled by a majority party.

The radically different rules for getting access to the ballot makes it more difficult for some, and easier for others.  This suppresses and prevents some people from participating equally.

Q: How is our democratic crisis impacting security? 

[Guy Verhofstadt] All over the world we face increasing threats to our security, such as global terrorism, and many nations have experienced horrific events, such as the attacks in Paris, Brussels and London.

Populists say that by closing our borders we are safer. This response preys on peoples fear and seems like a simple solution. However, they are lying. Closing our borders will not make us safer. Just look at Khalid Masood, who was the attacker in the recent Westminster attacks, he was born in the United Kingdom. Closing borders would not have prevented that attack, or protect people.

The only way to protect Europe is to build strong and united defence. At the moment there are dozens of bilateral and regional military cooperation, but we need a European capacity in intelligence to fight terrorism and a European defence community to protect our borders. Europol should be able to do more and conduct real investigations. Create a European border and coastguard. Create a single European asylum and legal migration policy. Create a European army. These things would make Europe safer. Listening to populists and ‘quick fix’ solutions, will not.

With the election of Donald Trump, and his dislike of NATO, Europe needs to become independently capable of ensuring its own security, since we can no longer fully rely on the United States. We need to work together to stand stronger in the world. Build European capacities to tackle the problems instead of closing ourselves off and hoping that they go away.

Q: How is our democratic crisis impacting the poorest, most marginalised and most at-need in our world? 

[Guy Verhofstadt] I think one of the key problems we face when trying to help the poorest and most at need in our world is that the European Union is not acting quick enough or efficiently enough. One example is the refugee crisis. We should seek a genuine European solution, with a European border and coast guard to protect our external borders and border guards that make the distinction between real refugees and economic migrants. We need a common asylum policy in Europe with one set of rules for the whole union.

In terms of the problems being created for the poorest, most marginalised and at need as a result of our democratic crisis and the rise in nationalist and populist politics in Europe, it has created an atmosphere where hate crime has increased, for example after the Brexit vote in the UK, and where more isolationist and nationalistic rhetoric of ‘looking after our own first’, has led to conversations about cutting foreign aid spending are increasing. While life is difficult for many people in Europe, we have a moral duty to help those in more need, and we have the capability to do it.

We must always protect the most vulnerable and the most at need to our world, especially when we are able to do so.

Q: What has been the relationship of capitalism to democracy?

[Yanis Varoufakis] The democracies we now have are fully the result of the capitalist revolution, but there is a prey-predator relationship between capitalism and democracy.

In exactly the same way that a predator needs the prey, but at the same time decimates it.  By decimating it, the population of prey decimates itself until eventually it starts growing again in numbers.  The remaining predator population cannibalises them again, and the dog-eat-dog relationship between capitalism and democracy continues.

Capitalism loathes democracy and at the same time cannot survive without it.  You have the financialisation of the economy combined with de-politicisation of monetary policy with so-called central bank independence, and constant attempts to confine democracy to a level where it doesn’t matter.  When that happens? Capitalism destabilises and falls into a trap, and we see a surge of democratic activity….

Q: What are your views on the concentration of wealth and power in society?

[Professor Lawrence Lessig] The concentration of wealth, and a political system responsive to that wealth, has produced a democracy that doesn’t give the American people what they would want if they were fairly represented.

It’s also in the interest of companies to shrink the footprint of politics in their industries, and that’s a significant obstacle for governments and democracies to then solve the problems faced by society.

This broken version of democracy increases the levels of frustration and anger within the American people, which we see manifesting in the levels of support for people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Q: Why are we seeing a surge in right-wing and populist movements?

[Vicente Fox] Politics is a pendulum, it swings from the left, to the right, to the left, to the right… You get into government and you see the liberals, the extreme left, populism, demagoguery, they don’t work or convince, they mess-up things, and then people look towards the right- the conservatives.  There is no ‘left or right’ in this sense, it’s just the way things develop.

There are times you need conservatism to keep the fundamentals of the economy in-line with disciplined approaches to growth and debt; and guess what, this creates jobs and wealth.  At the same time this limits the budget, and limits the possibilities for new ideas and new social programmes.

People then go to the other side where you distribute income, come up with social programmes, and have social innovation.  This is exactly what happened with Obama who- with the Democrats and liberals, went strongly towards the social responsibility side.  But now, the conservatives are saying, ‘no! no! it’s too much! The debt is too high! We need to stop this nonsense and go back the other way!’ – I think this is normal, we’re never going to have a world with only one path and one philosophy.

People change, economies change, the distribution of income changes, wealth changes, and then you have to adapt your political model and philosophy in the right direction.

[Alastair Campbell] The right-wing have always been better disciplined, and better organised.  You can look at UKIP and the Tories and argue they’re a shambles; but they have better links into think-tanks, the media and the business community.  The right always has these in-built advantages.  The left, the social democracies, of Britain and America seem to be ploughing a tough- uphill- furrow.

After the financial crisis of ’07/08 the assumption was that people would think capitalism didn’t work, and thus would move more to the left.  In-fact, people decided the crisis was such a catastrophe that they had to look after themselves instead- and they turned inwards.

Just look at the extraordinarily toxic campaigns in the Daily Mail such as their most recent one against foreign aid.  They’re saying to governments, ‘sod all these foreigners, sod foreign aid, sod community, just look after me…’

People can appeal to the basic feelings of fear within us, we’ve seen it through history with Hitler and in the modern day with Farage, Le Pen, Trump and their peers.  I’m not necessarily comparing Hitler with these individuals, but you see the principle.  It’s easy to play to fear, and not so easy to play to hope.

In Europe, we’ve had 25 years of systematic misrepresentation by the right-wing media and politicians, and the public have been misled by it.  As a result of this, people feel alienated from politics, and see the government as ‘the establishment.’  Don’t forget though- it’s not always the right-wing who become the anti-establishment voice, just look at Greece and Spain, and more recently here in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn.

This is not about right and left wing, but rather- anti-establishment versus establishment, populism versus elites.

[Prof. A. C. Grayling] Today’s politics shows the first past the post system’s imperfections.  When we had a coalition government (before 2015), the coalition partners were able to restrain the major parties and so policies tended to be more sensible and centre-road.  With our first past the post system, a one person majority in the commons can completely override all our constitutional provisions- and that’s bad.

At the moment, we have a government which has been hijacked by its own right wing, and we’re seeing things go off-course.

The system we now have of party ‘whips and loyalty is a challenge.  If we had MPs who were not under the control of a party ‘machine’ – it is unlikely we would see the more extreme measures that a far-left or far-right party would create should they have a majority.

If you look at our history since World War 2, we haven’t seen the choice of more extreme leaders we are now.  Characters like Trump, Farage and Le Pen have always been there, occupying an extreme, minority position on the fringe of the political spectrum.

A combination of recent factors has given them the opportunity to come to the forefront.

The 2007 financial meltdown caused many middle and low-class working people to get ‘stuck’ economically; their position hasn’t improved greatly since 2008 and- in fact- for many, things have got worse.   People at the top-end of the scale however, have continued to get richer.  This toxic increasing inequality is an extremely dangerous political beast.

In the European and American context, immigration has become a problem word.  In too many ways, the word immigration has become a way to conceal xenophobia and even racism.   I’m afraid we’ve seen expressions of that in the UK, USA and in Europe throughout recent political campaigns.

The implosion of the Middle-East has created floods of refugees who are escaping places of conflict and strife, placing great pressure on the EU- just look at the boat-people going to Italy and migrants travelling to Greece and the Balkans.  This has inflamed the anti-immigration sentiment.

Immigration and the stagnation of economic possibilities for those a little lower-down the economic scale have given populism its moment.  People like Farage, Trump and Le Pen have captured this and ran with it.

[Guy Verhofstadt] There has been an increase of populist and nationalist movements recently, but that does not mean it cannot be stopped. In order to stop this movement, we need to understand what caused it.

Populist politicians are quick to promise solutions to everyone’s problems, with so-called ‘simple solutions’. People who have not seen the benefits of globalisation, and who feel disenfranchised and ignored, see these populists offering a ‘quick fix’, and place their faith in them. However, these populist politicians rarely deliver. Just look at the Brexit vote in the UK. In the weeks after the vote, the politicians who campaigned for leave started going back on their promises, such as the infamous £350 million a week for the NHS. Trump is the same. He has already started reneging on the promises he made in the election campaign when he realises he cannot deliver them.

With the rise of populist politicians and the growth of nationalism, politics in Europe is no longer a fight between the left and the right. It is increasingly a fight between those who fight for open societies, and those who want to see closed societies. Yet, this increased support for authoritarian and Eurosceptic far-right parties, combined with dramatic falls in democratic engagement, should worry all of us.

Defeating nationalism and populism means addressing the concerns of those left behind by globalisation and dispelling the myths of a quick fix. For me, the solution is to manage globalisation in a fairer way, not to build walls and retreat to nationalism in the hope that this will deliver prosperity, improve security or deliver fairer societies – it won’t. We also need to streamline our political institutions and increase transparency in public institutions.

We must listen to people’s concerns about globalisation, but the response should not be protectionism, but rather to shape globalisation so that it works for us. The European Union has the power to shape globalisation and we should harness it. We need to listen to people’s concerns, not sneer at them, and offer a radical new vision for effective governance. Otherwise, nationalism will spread further.

Q: How are the media contributing to rise of populism and right-wing politics?

[Alastair Campbell] During my time at Number 10, I used to publish this thing called ‘Mailwatch,’ which was- in essence- a rebuttal to the constant stream of lies this paper put out.  People thought I was a bit mad to do this, and in the end Tony Blair said it perhaps wasn’t the way we should be going, so I stopped.

Whenever you listen to a review of the papers on the BBC, you’ll always hear them say ‘the left-leaning Daily Mail,’ the ‘Labour supporting Daily Mail,’ they’ll never tell the truth and say, ‘the far-right Daily Mail!

It’s important to also note that our politicians are simply not calling-out the media enough.  To be fair to Trump, even though he is the pinnacle of fake-news and post-truth politics, he at least had the guts to call out the media.

I have a very clear stance on publications like the Daily Mail.  I don’t have it in the house, I never talk to them, I talk about it publically being a lie-machine as often as I can.  Unless the whole of politics does it however, it can become accepted as the voice of England- and that’s dangerous.

[Prof. A. C. Grayling] We have seen the enormous growth of news, opinion and fake-news through digital media.  Nowadays, it’s not necessary to purchase a newspaper, magazine or television channel to get access to information or- indeed- ‘information.’

The newspapers and other mainstream news media- but particularly the tabloids such as the Daily Mail, Daily Express and FOX News have fallen-in to the post-fact world.  We’ve seen a dissemination of ideas from social-science, economics and psychology of the Daniel Kahneman kind… The great majority of people will make decisions based on gut-instinct and first impressions without checking their facts.  The first thing most people hear will anchor their opinions and position in regards a situation.  If you can shout an untruth or half-truth loudly enough, lots of people will accept it, won’t check-up on it, and won’t wait around to hear if it is retracted later on.

The BBC faced this very problem during the campaign leading-up to the June 23 referendum.  The BBC was being played… they were receiving press releases very late at night containing outrageous statements which they reported- they had to.  When they went to fact-check or challenge these statements some hours later, far fewer people heard the retraction than the original report. You may recall the phenomenon of the ‘spin doctor,’ these individuals took facts- actual information- and spun it to put the face they wanted in front of consumers.  Spin doctoring is over, because facts are over.   Now you can put out an outrageous lie and you can retract it a couple of hours later, knowing it will have already done the work you wanted it to do.  This is what happened with the leave-campaign for BREXIT and with the Trump campaign.   The only silver lining is that people have very quickly realised they are being tricked…

Q: What is the role of the media [social media] in our political outcomes?

[Guy Verhofstadt] Social media is an extremely good way of spreading your message and reaching out to people, and is also very good for increasing political participation. However, alongside the good points there are some challenges with it.

Fake news is one of the main problems. Fake news is not a new phenomenon, but it has become more widespread with the advent, and increase in the use of social media. Many people now use social media platforms to get their news, and it is sometimes difficult to tell what is fake news and what is real. This became particularly evident during the final months of the 2016 Presidential election. This is a key issue that we need to tackle.

We should not censor information, but as open, pro-EU politicians we must spread our message. We are, of course, already doing this and creating debate which politicians can participate in. There are new pro-European centrist movements which have sprung up across Europe which do not peddle lies, or owe their success to Russian-sponsored propaganda bots or social media trolls. We must continue to spread our message as far as we can.

Q: Can countries integrate economically while retaining their identity?

[Guy Verhofstadt] Personally, I think that a lot of people have a European identity! In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, I have received thousands of letters and emails from UK citizens who feel as if part of their identity has been stolen from them. For them, their country integrated economically, but also in a much more profound way – they felt, and many still feel, European. They feel European because of the values we share. Therefore, this idea that your identity can only be to your country is false. People gain a sense of identity by feeling like they belong and that the people around them have similar ideas of the world they want to see.

During the UK EU Referendum, there was a lot of emotive talk about how taking back their identity and sovereignty – “taking back control”, and even “putting the ‘great’ back into Great Britain” – would improve the situation for people in the forgotten parts of the United Kingdom. This nationalistic rhetoric portrays the nation state as being best placed to deal with common challenges, but their argument fails the test of reason and ignores the nature of the trans-national threats we face. Climate change, international terrorism and the negative consequences of globalisation cannot be tackled by individual countries acting independently. If the European Union of today did not exist, we would have to create it.

There are many benefits to countries who integrate rather than split. One of the greatest delusions peddled by populist on both the left and the right is that turning inwards will empower countries. The reality is that in an interconnected world, no one European country can influence global trade rules. And make no mistake, if we abandon shaping the environment around us, others will. This is why internationalism is important. Far from diluting national influence and control, pooling sovereignty actually helps to leverage more control and influence on the world stage. A clear example of how countries who integrate and pool sovereignty has benefitted us is NATO. Populist who shout, “We want our country back” and “let’s take back control” are doing so as they give up power and influence in our globalised world.

Q: What really drives our foreign policy? and how does that impact us, as citizens?

[Noam Chomsky] Foreign policy in the UK and Europe tends to follow the United States, not entirely- but the US does remain the prime driver in foreign policy. It’s not a secret what foreign policy is driven by. For example, Bill Clinton was quite explicit about it. His position, expressed clearly in congress, was that the US has the right to carry out a unilateral military action, sometimes supported by a (so-called) coalition of the willing in order to secure resources and markets and it must have military forces forward deployed- meaning foreign bases in Europe and elsewhere- in order to shape events in our interest. Our interest does not mean the American people, but rather the interests of those who design policy- primarily the corporate sector.

Foreign Policy can be undertaken in ways which are expected to harm security. In fact, that’s not at all uncommon. If you follow the Chilcot enquiry– the head of MI5 testified– merely extending what was already known- but she testified that both the United States and Britain recognise that Saddam Hussein was not a threat and that the invasion would very likely increase the threat of terror. And, in fact, it did! About seven-fold in the first year according to quasi-governmental statistics. So an invasion was undertaken which would harm the citizens of the invading countries, as indeed it did. At first, of course, the reasons were presented with the usual boiler-plate which is informative presentation which goes along with every act of force citing democracy and all-sorts of wonderful things. When it was becoming clear that the war-ends could not be easily achieved, towards the end of the invasion- certain policies were stated clearly. In November 2007 the Bush administration issued a declaration of principles stating that any agreement with Iraq would have to ensure the unlimited ability of US forces to operate there- essentially permanent military bases- and such an agreement would also secure the privileging of US investors in the energy systems. In 2008 Bush re-iterated and, in fact, strengthened this in a message to congress where he said that he would ignore any legislation that limits US capacity to use force in Iraq or that interferes with US control over Iraqi oil. That was stated very clearly and explicitly. In fact, the US had to back down from this goal as a result of Iraqi resistance; but the goals themselves were clear and explicit and had nothing to do with the security of Americans. The same is true elsewhere, so one leading specialist on Pakistan recently reviewed US policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan revealing once again that these policies are significantly increasing the threat of terror and in fact possibly nuclear terror. He concluded that American and British soldiers are dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world less secure for Americans and British. That’s not so unusual. Security is not, typically, a very top priority of states. There are other interests.

[Glenn Greenwald] One of the most amazing and illuminating exchanges over the past couple of years was an incident in the House of Commons in the UK where George Galloway stood up and questioned Prime Minister, David Cameron about British policies in Syria, and the people with whom the UK has aligned itself. David Cameron’s response- in essence- was that he wasn’t surprised to hear that question because this particular member always found ways to ingratiate themselves with the world’s dictators.

If you look at the foreign policy of the UK, and specifically the allies of Cameron; you see these trips he makes, and the praise he heaps on people who are the worst dictators of the Arab world.

In each countries foreign policy, there is a very overt form of loving dictators whilst spewing the rhetoric of freedom. It’s more disguised and subtle at home, but it’s very much the same dynamic.

Professor Lawrence Lessig] American foreign policy is insane and self-destructive.

What’s so striking about being in America and seeing the revival of the Star Wars franchise is that most Americans don’t realise that we are the Death Star, that is our whole philosophy.  American foreign policy is about building the biggest Death Star, and threatening the rest of the world into obedience.

Star Wars teaches the futility of that approach, and in the age of IEDs and bioterrorism,  America must realise the futility of trying to be the ‘biggest bully.’  We need to recognise that the way one builds strength and security is to encourage respect for the values we advance by practicing the values we promote.

Americans have a long way to come to recognise the deep flaws that stain our foreign policy, but I’m hopeful we can build on them.

Q: Why are our global economies looking inwards and moving towards protectionism and isolationism?

[Yanis Varoufakis] It is in the nature of capital to globalise.

Capitalist globalisation creates new barriers for people and labour by commoditising the economy.  Capitalism spreads, creating large-returns for itself that bolster inequality inside the jurisdictions where it spreads, and from where it spreads.  The greater the surge of capital and of its returns, the nearer the next crisis is; and when the next crisis hits, it becomes clear to the large-majority of people that they haven’t benefitted from that surge at all- and that’s the political process of isolationism.  The economy relies on isolationism to stabilise, until the next surge of capital arrives- and there we go again.

You cannot separate democratic and economic crises, and we’re seeing that in the United States right now.  Americans have been told for 30 years that globalisation is good for them, but the vast majority haven’t felt it, they’re worse off today than they were 30 years ago, carrying more debt than 30 years ago, and are suffering massive dislocation and pain after the financial crisis of 07/08 in which millions had their dreams shattered.  What followed that crisis was not a ‘V’ shaped recovery, but a very stagnant, flat recovery that allowed them to go back to work- but at humiliating wages, and no prospect of ever repaying their debts or their children’s.

The same disillusionment and stagnation with huge income and job inequality is also present in the United Kingdom, but there are peculiarities too.  There is an interesting alliance between the aristocracy in the south of England that detests sharing power with the people, and the political realm.  There is also an interesting wave of rejectionism of all things foreign.  This isn’t exactly racism, although it has racist dimensions and elements.  I have a degree of sympathy, without sympathising with it.   When I lived in England in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I recall that the young-foreigners living there (like me) were very engaged in the local goings-on of society, in politics and so on.  That was the Thatcher era, and all of us were engaged with the local struggles and political arguments.  We were integrated in this sense, and although we had our own communities, we felt integrated with the community.  Since London became financialised after the ‘big bang,’ and the ‘city’ rose to prominence, there has been a huge influx of non-English people coming to London to work, study and invest- pushing house prices through the roof.  These individuals have no connection to the local struggles and concerns of the community… they might as well be in Australia or the planet Mars.  London has become to resemble a shopping mall.  You could be anywhere on Earth, and nobody cares who takes the rubbish out at night.  The people behind the façade have become like the workers in a Potemkin village. Lots of work is happening behind the façade by locals and migrants, nobody looks at them, nobody cares about them.  The people who consider themselves the custodians of London and the surrounding areas feel invisible and discarded.  In my mind, that’s what explains UKIP.   I don’t sympathise or condone racism of any sort, but it’s important to sympathise with and understand the social dislocation that creates the feeling of being a discarded soul.  This could help us to understand the passion behind the ‘Brexit’ campaign.

Q: To what extent should internet access be a human right in today’s world?

[Jüri Ratas] In Estonia, access to internet as well as skills for internet use have spread so fast since 1990s that it has become a natural fact of life – people do expect to be able to connect wherever they are. And indeed, our successive governments have been working as if internet access were a human right – although legally it is not yet. It means that we have prioritised and even invested into building and upgrading telecom networks in the country, provided for internet use training and awareness programmes, etc. Current government is investing into fast-speed last mile connections again, for example.

Q: To what extent is the media influenced by corporate and government objectives?

[Noam Chomsky] There are cases where direct government and corporate interference takes place, but I don’t think that’s the major issue concerning corporate and government influence over the media. Using the United States as an example, the media are major corporations- so it’s not a question of corporate influence, they are corporations who are closely linked to government. There’s a constant flow of people from the corporate sector to government, the interactions are very close. The framework of selection of what to report, how to report it and so on is shaped overwhelmingly by the shared interests of elite sectors in the business world, government and so forth. In fact it’s not very different in the Universities, and you can see it day by day. Just take the no-fly zone in Libya. In Libya, the intervention- whether one approves of it or not- is being carried out by the three traditional imperial powers, the US, Britain and France. There is marginal participation by several other NATO countries, but the major countries are simply refusing to be involved, and many are just opposed to it. The BRICS for example, are opposed and Turkey doesn’t want to get involved and so on. Well the three, this imperial triumvirate, quite heavily in their propaganda discussed an Arab league request for a no-fly zone. The Arab league statement was rather tepid and was qualified shortly after but there was, in fact, a call for a no fly zone.

At the same time, the Arab league called for a no-fly zone over Gaza. In the United States that literally was not reported. While some small newspapers may have discussed it, there was no majors- no New York Times, Washington Post, none of the major media reported it.

In fact, in the entire Anglo-American press the only apparent story was in the Financial Times. Well, that’s a no-fly zone over Gaza.. which doesn’t fit US objectives and therefore it wasn’t news. At the same time, the no-fly zone over Libya did fit the objectives of the imperial triumvirate and so that was major news. And this is standard, it happens all the time.
One of the very striking examples which tells you something about the general intellectual culture, had to do with Wiki Leaks. The exposure that received by far the most attention in terms of headlines and euphoric commentary was that the Arabs support US policy on Iran, hostility towards Iran. That was all over the place and was quite interesting because what it was, in fact, referring to was Arab dictators. What about Arab public opinion? Well.. that was also studied and was studied by the most prestigious US polling institutions and released by prestigious institutions like Brookings. These studies are not reported! In the United States, literally not reported- I believe there was one report in England. These reports rank Egypt as the most important country in the region, and within Egypt over ninety percent of the population regard the United States as the most major threat. Eighty percent think the region would be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons. Only a small number, maybe ten percent, regard Iran as a threat. Those figures are rather similar throughout the region. But, for policy makers that doesn’t matter- as long as the dictators support us? what else matters.

This takes us back to our first question looking at the attitude towards democracy. The attitude is that the population doesn’t matter, as long as it’s under control; and you can see that. Incidentally, this is quite an old issue. If we had serious reporting on these issues, it would not only report Arab public opinion, but would report that the policy of ignoring Arab public opinion has been around for some time. Back in the 1950’s President Eisenhower was concerned about what he called the ‘campaign of hatred‘ in the Arab world; not by governments, but by people. In the same year, the national security council released a study concluding that there is a perception among the people of the Arab world that the United States supports harsh and brutal dictatorships, blocks democracy and development, and we do so because we want to maintain control over their energy supplies. It went onto conclude that the perception (of foreign policy objectives) is more or less accurate, and as long as the dictators support us- then who cares that there’s a campaign of hatred? as long as we can control the population… That has remained a consistent policy, very dramatically so today- and as you can see by the reaction to these exposures and unreported crucial data- that’s become a generally accepted attitude among educated sectors.

[Glenn Greenwald] One of the most significant trends in the past several decades of mass media has been the fact that media outlets have become large corporations themselves, functioning with the same dynamics that every other large corporation would that may sell arms, insurance policy and investment funds.

The finer attributes of large corporations; to be as uncontroversial as possible, to affirm orthodoxy as much as you possibly can to avoid upsetting those who wield power over your business… those are rational powers to adopt if you’re running a business, as they will maximise your profits. Unfortunately, that’s the same dynamic that drives corporate media outlets. It’s not just about maximising profits, but making sure that these corporations- that have so many other interests besides their media outlets- end up not suffering for them as a result of what their journalists are producing. This has produced a very pro-orthodoxy, pro-power posture in media outlets. Maybe that’s OK when you have a company selling insurance policies, but when you’re trying to engage in journalism? Nothing could be more harmful.

[Professor Lawrence Lessig] It’s not corruption from interested-party bias that’s causing problems with media, it’s their inability to focus or present sustained, informed reporting because of the incredible competition among media.  There is a race to the bottom in what the media is presenting, perpetuated by the growth in technology and supported by the US first amendment.

Let me give you an example.  In August 2015, US cable news simultaneously could not stop covering Donald Trump.  There was a perpetual, near-constant feed of his activities on every single news station… these same news stations were whining about the fact that everybody was spending their time covering Donald Trump.  It wasn’t because corporate media was forcing them to cover Donald Trump, it was the fact that Trump was a clown! He became entertainment and entertainment drives eyeballs which- ultimately- drives competitive advantage in media.

Q: How are governments impinging our civil liberties?

[Prof. A. C. Grayling] It’s right to say that our civil liberties are being eroded by governments, ostensibly under the guises of ‘the fight against terrorism,’ ‘the fight against organised crime,’ and ‘immigration control.’  All governments, if they could get rid of the inconvenience of protecting human rights and civil liberties, will move in that direction.  We’re seeing this right now with discussion around repealing the Human Rights Act.  We’ve seen it over the past couple of decades with a growth of anti-terrorism laws and the loss of the right to silence.

The majority of the population are not as conscious of this as it ought to be.  The vast majority of the erosion of our civil liberties has taken place without people taking notice of it, or not noticing until it’s too late.

Q: What is the role of press freedom as it relates to the justice system and wider democracy?

[Glenn Greenwald] The theory of why the free press is protected in the US constitution is one that I believe in. The founders of the United States were mostly preoccupied with the notion of how you create a centralised government without imbuing it with the kinds of authoritarian power that they had waged wars to raise themselves from. The only answer they could come up with was to create a whole bunch of checks on those kinds of power, things that would push back and be adversarial to it, and be designed to work against it.
One of the instruments for providing some limits on political power was a free-press. This did not mean people who got a degree in journalism and went to work for a media corporation, but rather anyone citizen who does journalism! Any citizen with a printing press! This was protected on the grounds that it pushed back against power. If all media was going to do was just amplify the claims of people in power, you wouldn’t need to protect the free press; for one, it wouldn’t have any value, and for another it would never be targeted with repression.

The only way that free-press can be valuable is if it serves as an adversarial force against those who wield the greatest power. That’s what journalism is all about.

Q: What is the reality of the level of capability of government and state monitoring of our communications?

[Glenn Greenwald] The capabilities that governments have to monitor communication are genuinely limitless. Whenever people ask me what the most shocking or significant revelation was from the Snowden archive, I always say the same thing. It wasn’t any specific story, but rather all these documents that describe what their [government] aspirations were as a spying agency. The thing that shocked me, even though I have been working on surveillance for a long time was that they literally had a stated goal of converting the internet into a limitless realm of monitoring and surveillance. That’s a motto that appears over and over again in these documents, they literally want a scenario where there are no communications that take place electronically between human beings that are beyond their surveillance and monitoring reach. In essence, they want to eliminate privacy in the digital age.

There are steps that can be taken to protect your communications, but by and large there are no limits on what government surveillance systems are capable of monitoring.

Q: To what extent is government monitoring of communications necessary?

[Glenn Greenwald] The crucial difference is between targeted surveillance and mass surveillance. I don’t think there is anyone in this debate who believes that it is inherently illegitimate for the state to ever target someone for surveillance. The difference is between targeting individuals where it is believed that they are engaged in some form of wrong-doing versus indiscriminately putting entire populations of hundreds of millions of people under a surveillance microscope despite any evidence of wrong-doing of any kind.

It’s because the US government and their allies are engaged in mass surveillance rather than targeted surveillance that there has been an Edward Snowden, and there has been a debate at all. If it were just them monitoring suspected members of Al Qaeda or people who are likely to engage in terrorist attacks, their would have been no whistleblowing or debate.

Q: What is the role of security and privacy in digital democracies?

[Jüri Ratas] In Estonia, we have been able to build up such a high level of digital government and society exactly because we consider cybersecurity and privacy protection to be a big part of it. For example, we already design our systems and services with privacy and security considerations in mind (privacy-by-design and security-by-design). That is why there is national digital ID, that is why citizens can check in online services how officials use their data, etc. So, as we see governments’ role to give a boost for digital societies to emerge and also lead by digital government works, in our view it is also then governments’ role to provide the right framework and solutions for security and privacy to be there. Who else could do it (for everyone), if not the governments? That is our role in our day and world.

Q: Can you balance the need for state security and privacy?

[Glenn Greenwald] It’s always difficult to find the exact perfect balance between security and privacy. It’s difficult to assess what the government needs to prove in order to target someone with the legitimate extent of surveillance- but you could certainly much more reasonably proximate what is a legitimate and reasonable balancing point, even if it’s imperfect.

The current surveillance posture of the US has no balance. They want to collect everything because they can; it’s the opposite of a balanced mind-set, and that’s what makes it so pernicious.

Q: How can digital technologies engage citizens in the process of democracy?

[Jüri Ratas] Digital tools offer great ways to bring governance closer to people and the other way around. This goes all the way to most important democratic and participation act, the voting. Estonia has offered a chance for people to vote online (for any voting) since 2005, to make democracy and having your say more accessible. In 2015 parliament elections, a third of votes came in over internet – votes we otherwise may not have received, as in busy times, less people are willing to go to physical stations to vote. So, digital solutions can help keep democratic processes alive indeed. 

Q: How can nations improve services for citizens, and businesses through digital means?

[Jüri Ratas] Very simply and shortly – offering services digitally has to be the norm in our day and age. That is the main way how to make services accessible and convenient, how not to burden the citizens and businesses overly with red tape. In Estonia, digital services are used a lot as they save people and especially companies’ time and that means money. The fact that you can sign everything digitally and from a distance, do your taxes, set up and administer your company fully online – this makes it all easier, faster, more convenient. And these are just a few examples; we have digitised interactions with government in all policy fields and sectors for the same reason. Today, our services attract even global users as through Estonian e-Residency programme everyone in the world can have access to our digital space – it is especially lucrative for all entrepreneurs, who want to run location-free trusted business online (with little hassle and no middlemen).

Q: How can state resilience be protected in the digital world?

[Jüri Ratas] As Estonia relies on digital so much, we invest a lot into protecting our resilience against the risks. All the way from how we design our digital solutions to how we operate them, we try to take account of possible risks, devise proper ways to manage them. In addition, we have procedures and resources in place to be able to act swiftly in case incidents actually happen – so that we can find out, limit them, and restore operations fast enough.

Our defences have been battletested (the 2007 large-scale cyberattacks), and we know that we can keep ourselves secure in a digital world – but we just have to keep doing it and developing it to make sure it stays this way.

Q: How can digital democracies help to provide voice and representation of all viewpoints in a community?

[Jüri Ratas] Digital channels and tools offer many ways to be in touch more often and more widely with constituents, from social media to specially designed tools and channels like online petitions or participatory budgeting initiatives (like in city of Tartu in Estonia). So, I see that digital world greatly can enhance development in this regard.

Q: How has your nation managed the arguments against digital democracy?

[Jüri Ratas] By always directly and transparently addressing and managing the underlying risks and arguments. For example, privacy or security concerns do not mean that digitisation cannot be done – it has to be done in a way that mitigates these risks to acceptable level (some ways for it that are outlined before already). Ultimately, we see in Estonia from experience that there are many more arguments for digitisation than against – we see it from the actual benefits we have had from digitisation, that people know and appreciate, too.

Q: How could nations work better together if digital government was embraced? 

[Jüri Ratas] We see the benefits the best in Europe. All countries are taking steps towards becoming more digital, which allows and actually requires us to take some steps now together as well. Otherwise we risk limiting the benefits of digitisation could bring, especially to Single Market. We need to allow data to move freely across borders (as a fifth freedom of EU), connect also governmental databases to make data flow instead of people with papers when they move to or go to do business in other countries. This way we encourage exchange, trade, integration. Or to put differently – we need to remove those digital non-integration bottlenecks that currently hindle the flows in Single Market. That is Estonian priority as the EU presidency in second half of 2017, and in our work even beyond.

Q: Has the Internet enabled our freedom of speech and democratic liberty?

[Glenn Greenwald] The Internet has been vital in rejuvenating the idea of free speech, the free press, and democratising political and media discourse. That’s long been the promise; as heralded by fans of the Internet, and I think it’s finally starting to come to fruition.
For one thing, in order to reach a large audience a decade ago- you had to work for a large media outlet such as the New York Times, NBC news or one of the big British newspapers- and you’d have to submit yourself to all of their editorial strictures and methods for doing journalism. Now? There are all kinds of people who have built very large readerships by starting a blog! That’s how I began journalism! Even now, there are people with thousands of followers they reach, even without having worked at a large media agency- that has really enabled people outside the corporate structure to have a serious influence on how we think about things.

[Professor Lawrence Lessig] The internet is simultaneously the best and worst of influences for society.

The internet gives people who are interested, much more access to information and fact checking and gives them access to many more ideas, comparisons and so forth which they would never have had access to before.

On the other-hand however, the internet encourages ‘snippet journalism,’ ‘tweet based journalism,’ it encourages the fiction-based politics that Donald Trump has demonstrated.  Trump’s biggest outlet for the whole of his campaign has been twitter, and because of the architectural constraints of that platform? It’s been trivially easy for him to evade the truth without anyone being able to call him out on it.

We’re going to see a pretty important set of innovations around influence using the internet that will allow influence to be aggregated at a more intermediate level.  This re-intermediation of influence is being facilitated by the internet, as sites begin to collect endorsers and supporters and give them a platform to discuss why they support or oppose a candidate.  This will gradually weaken the effect of commercially driven media, and will be a powerful addition to the economy of influence in politics.

Q: What are the greatest threats that exist to our democratic freedom of expression?

[Glenn Greenwald] The existence of mass surveillance is- itself- a huge threat to the values the Internet enables. The history of communication and media technology shows that whenever something is created that threatens to change the concentration and distribution of power; that the people who wield power try to subvert it, and try to annexe it for their own use. This is exactly what Internet surveillance is doing. One of the pre-requisites to being able to speak freely and use the Internet to engage in activism is the idea that you can do so with privacy and anonymity. The idea that you can express ideas without feeling like you’re being judged for them is important.

Studies show that when human beings are being watched, they become much more conformist and their behavioural traits narrow significantly. There’s a huge tension between the open thought the Internet enables, and how mass surveillance creates self-censorship.

Q: What is the true nature of information subversion seen by governments and corporate institutions?

[Noam Chomsky] I should say that, by now, there are thousands of pages of detailed documentation on this topic. Without going too far afield, let’s look at the topics we just mentioned. Is it important for us to know that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken with the expectation that it would increase terror? was undertaken with the intention of ensuring US corporations have privileged access over Iraqi oil? and it would be a permanent US military base? I think it would have been important for the public to know that. I think it would be important for the public to know now that Arab public opinion is so hostile to western (specifically US) power- that it regards the US as a prime threat, and thinks the region would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons. Is it important for people in the United States and Britain to know that? I would think so! We can go on with case after case. Is it important for Americans, for example, to know that if we had a healthcare system similar to other industrial societies the deficit would be erased and we wouldn’t have to go after teacher’s pensions and Medicare payments for the elderly and so forth? Yeah, I think that would be important to know. I think, in fact, that ought to be blaring headlines!

All this information can be found out if you do a research project- but it doesn’t even enter the public eye.

Q: What influence do large corporations exert in society?

[Noam Chomsky] Corporations play an overwhelming role in society. I don’t think that fact is even contentious. Similar observations have been made as far back as Adam Smith who pointed out that in Britain the principal architects of policy were merchants and manufacturers, the people who own society- and they ensure that their interests are served however grievous the impact on the people of England. This is far more true today, with much higher concentrations of power- we are not just manufacturers, we have financial institutions and multinational corporations. They have an enormous influence, and the influence can not only be harmful, but in many cases lethal.

Taking the United States as an example- the corporate sector has been carrying out major propaganda campaigns to try to convince the population that there is no threat from global warming. This, in effect, has led to the majority of people now agreeing it is not a real issue. Business funding has also been the primary instrument in bringing a new group of cadres to congress- figures who are virtually all climate change deniers. These individuals are about to enact legislation to cut-back funding for the international organisation (the IPCC) and the capacity of the environmental protection agency who may not even be able to monitor the effect of greenhouse gases or carry out any other actions which could reduce the impact of global warming which is a very serious threat! This has been done by the corporate executives who are carrying out these propaganda campaigns and funding political figures who are undercutting such efforts. They understand as well as anyone else that global warming is a very serious threat, but there is an institutional role that enters here. If you are the CEO of a corporation, your task is to maximise short-term profit. That’s much more true now than it ever has been in the past. We are in a new stage of state-capitalism in which the future just doesn’t matter very much, even the survival of the firm doesn’t matter very much.

What matters increasingly is short term profit and if a CEO doesn’t pursue that, he will be replaced with someone who will do it. This is institutional effect, not individual effect, and has extraordinary implications on society. It may, in fact, destroy our very existence.

[Glenn Greenwald] There is an artificial division when we talk about the government versus large corporations such as Google. Aside from the fact that they work together on all kinds of common-objectives and goals- such as the PRISM programme and so on.
In Western democracies, money plays a huge influence in political outcomes. In some ways, the government becomes a tool for those who wield the greatest economic power. It’s not as though there’s a separate thing called the Government, and this other thing called Google – but rather that they’ve become one. You have all this mass surveillance on the part of the government, but similarly Google, Facebook and a whole bunch of other corporations act the same way and carry it out.

Q: To what extent does a class-system still exist in western societies?

[Noam Chomsky] The business-classes are constantly fighting a bitter class war, and they are aware of it. If you read the business press they mourn about the hazard facing industrialists and the rising political power of the masses- and the need to fight the everlasting battle for the minds of men, and so forth… and they act on it! They are constantly carrying out major campaigns to ensure the concentration of power in the hands of the corporate sector will increase. In the last thirty years or so, there have been changes in the nature of the economy- shifting from capitalist to state-capitalist. A lot of the dynamism in an economy comes from the state; computers, the internet, the IT revolution and so on. The applications come from the private sector, but not the basic research and development. That has remained true, across the board. Over the past thirty years, there has been a significant change- a move towards “financialisation” of the economy. Financial institutions now have a far higher share of the profit in the economy than forty years ago. Another shift has been towards the outsourcing of production which, in effect, places working people throughout the world in competition- with obvious consequences. Well those changes have set in motion a vicious cycle in which wealth is more and more concentrated within an extremely small population. In the United States, the primary factor of inequality is the extreme concentration of wealth within a fraction of one percent of the population comprising CEO’s, hedge fund managers and so on. As that concentration of wealth increases, it carries with it a concentration of political power since wealth has an enormous effect on the political system- and the political power in turn leads to legislation, which enhances the concentration of wealth. Fiscal policies, deregulation, rules of corporate governance and so on. This cycle exists all through the world, but is very striking in the United States. Within the last generation, for one thing, we have seen repeated financial crises which simply didn’t occur in the fifties and sixties when new-deal regulations were still in place and the financial system was much more restricted. Increasing financial crises are not a problem for the big banks and investment firms because they can rely on the nanny state to bail them out. If we had a capitalist system, financial crises would be serious but they would be overcome simply by bankruptcy of the culprits, so Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup simply wouldn’t exist- they would have gone bankrupt a long time ago! But since we don’t have a capitalist system, they have been rescued by the taxpayer repeatedly. In fact, they are given what amounts to a government insurance policy called “too big to fail” and the credit-ranking agencies take that into account. When they determine the credit-level of Goldman Sachs, they take into account that if they partake in a lot of risky transactions, and hence make a lot of profit and the system collapses, there will be a bailout- that increases the firms credit-ranking and means that can get cheaper loans and so on. Meanwhile, for the general population of the past generation or so- for the overwhelming majority, incomes have pretty much stagnated while working hours have increased and benefits have declined leaving a very angry, frustrated and confused population that is pretty much divorced from political decisions. Decisions which are extremely in the hands of an extremely narrow concentration of power- and the media go along with it, as they are essentially part of the system. There is some sniping around the periphery, this is a free society after all- but the overwhelming thrust tends to support the system. These are very anti-democratic tendencies, and also quite dangerous.

Q: What is your view on the ‘global-war-on-terror’?

[Noam Chomsky] One problem is that it doesn’t exist. You don’t fight a war on terror by carrying out actions which you anticipate will increase terror. The invasion of Iraq, again, was undertaken with the expectation that it would increase terror- and in fact it did. That is not a war on terror. There shouldn’t be a war on terror, but rather an effort to undercut terror. The ways to do this are well-understood. Britain is a perfectly good example. Take, for example, IRA terror which was pretty serious! As long as Britain responded using violence, that increased and escalated the cycle of terror. Finally- partly through United States influence, and partly from internal pressure- they responded by paying some attention to the legitimate grievances that existed in the background of the terrorist actions. Well, that led to a decline in terror. By now, Northern Ireland- while not utopia- is certainly not how it was even fifteen years ago. That’s the way you deal with terror! Look at its roots, sources and do something about them.

[Glenn Greenwald] The War on Terror has spiralled so far out of control, so far beyond what it claims to be; from the question from what even is terrorism and who is actually doing it, to the way that there’s an enormous gap between the policies that are justifying the means versus the reality.

When I was in New Zealand a couple of months ago, I was reporting about mass surveillance in the run-up to that country’s elections and at first the government denied it engaged in mass surveillance even though documents proved it did; and of course they resorted to claims of ISIS and all these other terrorist groups that they had to keep people safe from. This is New Zealand! A country with a small population, at the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean!

The spectre of fear mongering has become so potent, that all politicians have to do is utter the words and citizenry capitulates and acquiesces to whatever they want. The War on Terror has become a justifying mantra for Western Governments to do whatever they want.

Q: Why do we have stagnation?

[Yanis Varoufakis] When you don’t have investment into innovation, and industries that actually make stuff – you lose a sense of materiality, and the whole economy becomes footloose – and turns into one giant bank.  The economy loses the hands-on feel of a place where people make things, and can identify with them.   This is exactly what happened when the decision was made to de-industrialise Britain.

The British bourgeoisie decided a long time ago, not to be bourgeoisie anymore.

Q: How can communities create their own alternatives to capitalist democracies?

[Yanis Varoufakis] Working class people have been trying to create their own alternatives to the status-quo for a long time.  Just look at the mutual societies, the cooperative movements and so forth.  They respond to a lack of opportunity by creating their own little utopias and quasi-utopias.  Youngsters get together and create cooperative start-ups, communities are running abandoned minds, and there is a great deal of solidarity in our communities.

These utopic pockets face problems.  There are a lack of resources, and a huge lack of networks between them – and so they don’t have the financial and human resource to scale.   They may also become too successful, in which case they become cannibalised by capitalist enterprises.  When mutual societies become rich, they get bombarded by offers for buy-outs.  The members of the collective get bribed in order to turn into shareholders!

Local efforts are crucial, but we need to embed them in an overarching, progressive political movement otherwise they will be lost.

We need to also look at innovation in how our economy works, for example a system where you take your human capital with you – so your contribution and value are portable between organisations.  Think about the stock-exchange, they impose rules on members and can arrive at spontaneous order, or can be ordered through government rules.  We need to create a combination of evolutionary and political systems that empower the future economy to work for citizens.

Q: Do we need to get more involved in political discourse?

[Vicente Fox] We need to have much more citizen involvement in politics; much more educated involvement.

I am very disappointed with BREXIT for instance, where people who went to vote did not represent the whole constituency of citizens, and did not represent specifically the future.  The young were not there.

The BREXIT campaign was run by populists who did not know what BREXIT meant, and were not informing citizens about the losses that Britain’s economy would face.  They were only siding with nationalism, and misinforming voters about what the country needed from this referendum.

Trump, this crazy guy, campaigned around a referendum. He asked people, ‘what do you want to have? A strong successful America? Or an America that has failed under the Obama administration?’ That’s a false debate, it was a trap.  Trump is a false prophet who has the capacity to speak and convince people around the wrong ideas.

Electors have to prepare themselves much better.  They have to read and get the information they need to make the right decisions.

Today’s democracies are not delivering.  Today’s democracies are presenting false alternatives.  These messianic leaders, these false prophets, are taking people to the land of nowhere… taking people to the desert… it’s very dangerous.

Q: What are the consequences of a lack of public-engagement and public-knowledge around their own democracy? 

[Guy Verhofstadt] A lack of public-engagement and the public feeling disenfranchised is a key issue facing the European Union. We need to make our democratic institutions more transparent and accountable in order to make citizens more invested and interested in these institutions.

Public-knowledge is very important too, and more transparency can make it easier for the public to have more knowledge about their democratic institutions.

It has been evident from the Brexit vote and following discussions since the vote in the UK that there was a lack of understanding about the European Union and how it works. Phrases like sovereignty were used a lot throughout the campaign, but when the case was taken to court as to whether the UK parliament should have a vote on triggering Article 50 there was outrage amongst some leave voters. But this was what they supposedly wanted back – parliamentary sovereignty.

So it is very important that the citizens feel involved in politics and that they have a good knowledge of their democracy because otherwise people can feel cheated by decisions made, or feel disenfranchised and therefore don’t participate in their democracy.

Q: Do we have a crisis of political leadership?

[Alastair Campbell] The other day, I went to see a play called ‘This House’ which was about the Labour Whip’s Office in 1974.  It sounds like an odd-subject for a play, but it was very good.  There were so many big characters back-then, not just government ministers- but even people in the background.

If Angela Merkel wasn’t in Europe at the moment, I’d be terrified.  There’s nobody else with the leadership skills and values we need.

Politics has taken on so many negative connotations that people have become hostile to it.  Partly that is the fault of politics, and let’s be honest- the MP’s expenses issue didn’t help… and issues like Iraq didn’t help either… but unless people choose to get involved in politics and campaign, you will inevitably have a very narrow gene pool of individuals in political leadership.

There are media who cover politics very well, but the vast majority is total sh** and extremely hostile and negative.  You can’t change that easily.  We had an opportunity with the Leveson Enquiry- not just to get the regulations right, but also to change culture.  That never happened because Cameron ran away from it.

We teach our children that sport is good for them and that’s why our schools teach PE and encourage exercise.  We teach our children that fruit and veg are good for them, and encourage them to eat more of those things.  From primary school we should teach our kids, right through the school system, that politics is a really important part of their lives and that being involved in their community, and making decisions about the community matters.  We teach them who the Kings and Queens were, but we never teach them about citizenship, their area, and their community and how decisions are made about their lives.

I think we should have compulsory voting for local and national elections.

As it stands, everyone thinks they should have a say but they don’t get out and vote! 2 million people sign a petition for something to happen- which never does, but that’s not engagement, that’s signing a petition!

America is an interesting example.  The campaigns for the 2016 elections were the most highly polarised, highly covered and intense of our lifetimes but even then, 50% of the population didn’t vote!  These are the same people who will put their hands up and argue they don’t get a say!

 

[Guy Verhofstadt] The political leadership that we need at the moment must come from liberal democratic parties. Politics in Europe is now between those who fight for open societies and those who want closed societies. To tackle this move towards more closed, protectionist societies, liberal democratic parties must unite and lead this battle. This task falls to us because we are internationalist, not protectionist; and we believe in fighting for societies where everyone is treated with respect and everyone is listened to, rather than the divisive “us versus them” rhetoric deployed by many populists’ parties. European leaders have to counter this rhetoric by offering an alternative vision of hope.

We can see this happening, for example in Poland and in Spain, where people are seeking out an alternative. The pro-EU marches, where thousands and thousands of people marched on the streets to show their support for the EU. These are signs that people want change, and it is our job as politicians to harness that energy and provide the alternative vision. This is what we, as liberals, are doing.

Q: What are your views on globalisation and a shift of economic power to China and India?

[Noam Chomsky] First of all, we should be a little careful when discussing a “shift of economic power”. It is certainly true that China and India have had very significant growth rates, but these are very poor countries. Take a look at their GDP per capita for example. According to World Bank figures (which are grossly underestimated) China has maybe five percent of the GDP per capita of the United States, India maybe two percent. These figures ought to be doubled or tripled, but even so they are a small fraction of western power. China has grown spectacularly and there’s been quite significant impact on reducing poverty and so on. Nevertheless China remains, as of now, an assembly plant. If you take a look at the trade deficit of the United States with China (which is much discussed) and calculate it accurately, in terms of value-added, it turns out the trade deficit with China is over-estimated by about twenty five to thirty percent. The trade deficit with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea is underestimated by the same figure. The reason is, within the dynamic East Asian production system- the high technology parts and components come from the periphery- from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China assembles. Over time, this will change as China moves up the technology ladder, but that’s how it is now. It’s even more the case in India- which has hundreds of millions of people who are completely excluded from the system. Peasant suicides are increasing at roughly the same rate as the creation of billionaires. A couple of hundred million people have gained, and many more have not- and their situation has been getting worse. There are also enormous ecological problems which are not counted as costs, though they should be. What’s going on there is pretty spectacular.

There is much talk of China’s holding of US debt and what that implies and so on. Japan’s holding of US debt is approximately the same, that does not give Japan power over the United States. There’s a lot of misleading commentary about these topics.

Q: What do you think the world will look like 25 years from now?

[Noam Chomsky] Well, there are a number of things taking place. The United States after the second World War was overwhelmingly dominant, its power has been declining since and is declining right now. In part, this decline has to do with the increasing growth in Asian production- we shouldn’t exaggerate but it’s certainly a part of it. Another factor is the internal attack on the health of American society- the corporate onslaught that has taken place over the past generation has severely weakened American society. There is an attack on the educational system which will have severe long-term effects on economy- there is a general attack on the workforce- the vicious cycle I described is fine for a very small sector of the population, but is harmful for everyone else. The infrastructure is in very poor shape.

Anyone who travels from Europe or even Asia to the United States often think they are coming to a third-world country! This is increasing. It is not a problem for the small-sector of wealth and power that off-shore’s production and engages in financial manipulations- for them it doesn’t really matter if the country declines. It is declining, and it is under attack internally. The United States does have a financial crisis- deficit and debt problem- that is due to two things. One, the enormously bloated military budget which is approximately the same as the rest of the world combined and secondly, a highly dysfunctional privatised unregulated healthcare system. Those two elements are being protected and that, along with the vicious cycle that I mentioned, is leading to severe internal problems which will continue the decline. In addition, the environmental problem is very serious. If the United States does not take the lead, the rest of the world is not going to do very much. If the United States undermine efforts deal with environmental problems- as is now happening- that is going to be even more serious and that’s exactly what we see in front of us for the institutional reasons that I mentioned. Thirty years from now, that will be much more significant.

There is also, unfortunately, an increasing threat of nuclear war and even nuclear terror. That’s why I mentioned before US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan- part of that policy increases the risk that fissile materials will fall into the hands of radical Islamists. I should say that radical Islam has been strongly supported by the United States and Britain for a long time as a barrier to secular nationalism. The US has also supported the nuclear programmes of Pakistan, India and Israel- the three non-signers of the non-proliferation-treaty. All of that is a very combustible mix.

There are also going to be increasing conflicts over resources. Resources are being pressed to the limit and with increasing growth, there will be competition- which will lead to severe resource conflict and maybe wars of some kind. They may not be military wars, but some kind of conflict. For example- if we look at the major world energy resources in the Middle-East, more are now going East than West! The United States so far is tolerating this- they want Saudi oil to go to China to undercut China’s initiatives in Iran- that’s part of US geopolitical strategy but that will cause conflict and is true of other resources- Iron, Copper, Lithium and so -on. This is a growing and serious problem- and gives a pretty gloomy prediction of the future unless something significant changes.

[Professor Lawrence Lessig] We need to think systemically, and think about whether the system of representation that we’ve allowed to evolve gives democracy a chance.

Rather than stirring-up endless energy to fight for one side, or another, of a partisan battle, we need to step back and work with people from the other side and build a political system that works.

Across the world, democracy is facing a challenge.  We have to find a way to make it possible for democracy to work in a way that builds confidence in the way it can enable governance and participation.

Q: How can we fight populism?

[Alastair Campbell] People say ‘we’ as though there’s a unified group, but that ‘we’ consists of individuals acting as individuals and communities.  The reality is that you can do something, I can do something and we can all do different things to fight back against populism and the right-wing becoming normalised.

The Daily Mail are running a disgusting campaign against foreign aid, it’s borderline fascist.  Anyone who buys the Daily Mail should stop.  The we point is difficult, there are things that we should do- and something in the political, commercial or civil world will give.

We’ve made such huge progress against racism, sexism, homophobia and around inequality- and these are all things that parts of the right-wing want to reverse.

You have to keep fighting for what you believe in, you have to keep making the case for what you believe in and not allow these views and situations to become normalised in life.

[Prof. A. C. Grayling] There are many fronts on which battles must be fought.

The perennial battle is that if we are serious about having a well-functioning representative democracy, we have to understand how to make education work for that purpose.  We have compulsory schooling up-to a certain age, but this education doesn’t create the intelligent, informed public that we need to create a well-functioning democracy.  Efforts have to be redoubled and trebled to make that happen.  Very deliberate, examined, civics education is an obvious necessity.

The public conversation is too-easily hijacked by the front pages of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun.  This is corrosive and corrupting on public understanding of complex, serious issues such as the EU referendum, migration and so on.  We have to push-back on this and get people to understand there is a constant manipulation of their opinions through these publications.  We need a grown-up debate, and this is not possible in the post-fact, post-spin world.

In the sections of our society where public-debate actually takes place; we have to act on our understanding of how easy it is for misinformation, misinformation and manipulation of news to work.  The BBC did a very poor job in the referendum, this is a public service broadcaster who should have been extremely robust at challenging both sides of the campaign, who should have been much quicker at fact-checking and much more aggressive at challenging claims that were false.   On a matter this serious, and this important, you cannot allow the running to be made by people who we know- and who themselves avow- to be tendentious.

Q: Are you hopeful for the future?

[Prof. A. C. Grayling] There’s a pendulum of action and consequence in public-affairs such that if all the worst-consequences of Brexit and Trump play out; there will be reaction in the coming generation that will bring us back to liberalism and sensible democratic procedures, consensus, and institutions.

By campaigning very hard against Brexit, and hoping that Trump is a one-term President, we are trying to hold tightly to the liberal, democratic, consensus that has operated for the past half-century.  If we succeed? We can stop the pendulum swinging-away from us too far.

We have to take notice of the reasons why there has been an up-swelling of populist sentiment in the UK, USA and elsewhere.  There are problems out there but- for the UK- Brexit is not the answer to them.

Take the example of immigration…. People think, ‘oh, we’re very worried about immigration…’ but those same people tend to be the ones from parts of the country with very low immigration, that’ always the case.  We have to tell these people that the answer to their anxiety is not to stop immigration, but for them to be open to understand why immigration is a good thing, that immigrants are net contributors to our economy, that beliefs about being swamped by foreigners are mistaken, misplaced and ill-founded.

Things like austerity economics (introduced by George Osborne post financial-crisis) have done a great deal of harm, and increased populism.  We have to find ways of addressing the difficulties the country faces without doing so much harm to the NHS, working class families and the rest; this creates toxicity which then manifests with anger and protest against those very people we should be trusting to lead us.

Q: What would be your advice to the next generation?

[Yanis Varoufakis] I don’t believe in giving advice, our generation did really badly!

There can be no technical solution to working-out what is in our common interests.  We do not lack the technology to understand our society.  Democracy is not an aggregation, it’s dialectical – it’s a dialogue.

Every time a conversation takes place, you emerge as a different person.  Part of the other person has become part of you, and part of you has become part of the other person.  Democracy is not just about voting and aggregating, it’s about reflecting into each other’s thoughts, passions and ideas.  We need to make that something we enjoy for its own sake.

As Lenin used to say, in the end- what matters is who does what to whom.  It’s all about power, and about overcoming.  Politics is the overcoming of power relations.

[Vicente Fox] You need to get involved in politics, profoundly involved.  You need to commit with your nation and country to create a government that works.

You need to be innovative.  We need Einstein’s, Newton’s, we need people who don’t believe in the established ideas but who create new things.

Right now, the future of democracy is like an embryo.  We are going to see the birth of new democratic structures, new ways of forming governments, new ways of forming parliaments and congresses.  What we have today is not working and we need to invent new political parties.

We need truth in our democracies and leaders who speak the truth.  There is a lot of misleading, cheating and lies in public life today.

You have to be frank, committed and inventive.  Let’s create a new world of truth, a world of institutions that are not corrupt, and a world of democratic institutions that work.

[Jüri Ratas] In digital age, governments are just a few taps or clicks away – and it is easier than ever to be active yourself. The most important thing is not just to be a digital user, but I encourage people to become digital creators. Whether as a government official, prime minister, entrepreneur, activist – if you know how computers work and coding goes, you can be much more effective in your work by redesigning processes and shaping the country. So, do study some computing and coding whatever your field of study or later job might be.

[Guy Verhofstadt] It is important to remember that the crises of our time cannot be solved by a state on its own. The economic crisis, the refugee crisis, the fight against terrorism. Only by working together will we be able to tackle these problems and create a better world. Nationalism cannot be the answer, and if the trend towards nationalism continues I would urge the younger generation to study the history of nationalism in Europe. It is not something we want to go back to. Having said that, I believe that ultimately, nationalism will be rejected by future generations because its politicians are incapable of resolving the challenges we face, since they are global challenges.

So my message to the next generation would be learn about different cultures and build upon the values you share to work towards global solutions to global problems.

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In his 2009 book “Freedom For Sale“, John Kampfner discusses that by 2000, “… for the first time, democracy had acquired majority status in the world. Yet, as the writer Paul Ginsborg points out, at the very time it appeared to be dominant, liberal democracy had actually entered a profound crisis. This was not a crisis of quantity; quite the opposite. The crisis, rather, was one of quality.” Kampfner continues by citing many cases of this quality-issue including the “dubious judicial legitimacy” of the 2000 US Presidential election along with the more recent manipulation of evidence leading up to the Iraq war, the humiliations of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the systematic use of torture in secret jails around the world, and more.

In order to succeed in this moral void…” he writes, “the new authoritarians came to a pact with their peoples. The specific rules varied between countries, but the template was similar. Repression was selective, confined to those who openly challenged the status quo. The number of people who fell into that category was actually very few… The rest of the population could enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as they wished and to make and spend their money. This was the difference between public freedoms and private, or privatised, freedoms…. After all, how many members of the public, going on about their daily lives, wish to challenge the structures of power? One can more easily than one realises be lulled into thinking that one is sufficiently free.

His view of being sufficiently free brings us back to the view of democracy being a “...compromise designed to balance interests among members of a community” albeit rather than balancing interests in a true sense, democracy (as we see it) becomes a pseudo-negotiation between a ruling elite (be they political or corporate) and their peoples as to what freedoms they (the peoples) are prepared to cede in exchange for perceived comforts. This moral-equilibrium-point is further provoked into volatility by the huge inequality we see between societies with the population of one wishing for the freedoms (be they economic, social, or political) in another. In ‘western’ civilisation, consumerism has provided a unique substrate for this pact. As Kampfner points out, “…people in all countries found a way to disengage from the political process while living in comfort. Consumerism provided the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain.

Unlike true-dictatorships, citizens in ‘the west’ have a sense of debate, control and participation in the issues affecting their lives. This sense of participation is supported by the level of information citizens receive about their democracy and the opportunities they have to interact with it through voting rights, panels, protest, and many other means. If, therefore, they feel sufficiently engaged in the democratic process- why should they even question the democracy of it!

The fact is we are encountering what can only be described as a participation-fallacy. Yes, citizens have the right to elect leaders (albeit who have sufficient capital to run for election) and vote on a wide variety of issues; but if we consider the most important issues which have had the most profound influence on western society in the past decade (including wars, bank-bailouts, climate change and more) aside from the right to show public-opinion through protest, have citizens really had the opportunity to exercise public-opinion? The answer is no- and even the most cursory glance of public opinion polls and outlets will show the widespread displeasure at many decisions which, while ostensibly “taken in citizens’ best interest“, rarely were.

This is not a problem we can solve overnight, the status-quo has become embedded and systemic in every part of our society. For our world to truly become democratic, the process has begin with education and end with culture meaning that citizens are not only more aware of the opportunities and processes of democracy, but are also culturally driven towards a culture which Dr. Wright describes as, “…a theory, policy, procedure and art, emphasising human welfare, individual freedom, popular participation and general tolerance. It can adapt itself to many conditions, but it thrives in an atmosphere of education, toleration, peace and prosperity.” The traits of “Ignorance, dogma, war and poverty..” Dr. Wright argues (traits which have almost become hallmarks of our civilisation) “are its enemies. They breed absolute and arbitrary government, uncritical and lethargic people, which are the reverse of democracy.

People in the long run..” stated David Eisenhower, “are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” For that to happen, though, we must realise that we (as people) are in this together and that the notions of society and self-interest are, for the most part, incompatible. By understanding that in exchange for a few notional-comforts we (actively) give-up our own freedom and the freedoms of billions of citizens around the world, we lose any perceived moral high-ground we have and any assertion of the freedom of our society.

There is no such thing as a little freedom…” said Walter Cronkite, “either you are all free, or you are not free.


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